Multi-gigabit wireless spec on tap by year-end

Microsoft, chip makers band together on wireless front

Seventeen chip makers, consumer electronics companies and one software vendor, Microsoft, have banded together to create a standard for multi-gigabit, short-range wireless networking.

The new spec by Gigabit Wireless Alliance (WiGig) is all about speed: using the 60GHz frequency to achieve a data rate of up to 6Gbps, with actual maximum throughput of just over 5Gbps. A low-power option, aimed at mobile and battery-powered devices, will have a minimum throughput of 1Gbps. That compares to about 150-180Mbps throughput for today's typical 802.11n WLAN using 3 transmit and 3 receive antennas. The Alliance plans to have the first draft of the spec available by year-end.

The 60GHz band has been the focus of much recent research and technology demonstrations over the past two years.  In early 2008, the WirelessHD consortium unveiled a specification for streaming high definition video, for example between a BlueRay disc player and a flat screen TV. Last year, Australian researchers showed a CMOS chip that bettered the performance of the WirelessHD silicon from SiBeam.

The WiGig spec will use the 60GHz band, which is an unlicensed frequency available worldwide, a key consideration for product vendors seeking global markets. Just as importantly, the frequency has been allocated a big chunk of bandwidth: 7GHz in the U.S., and as much as 9GHz in some other countries, says Bill McFarland, CTO for chipmaker Atheros Communications, one of the founding WiGig members.

"Because we can use such a large swath of the spectrum, we can get very high data rates," he says. Among other things, those frequency characteristics would let WiGig radios stream uncompressed high quality video.

The 60GHz band also is largely unused, compared for example to the 2.4GHz band, which is crowded with 802.11bg, Bluetooth, microwave, and other applications. The multi-gigabit link could be used for storing video on network-attached storage and streaming it to a flat panel display or PC, transferring lots of images, and synchronizing hard drives between devices.

A wide range of products could make use of it. Alliance members see WiGig radios being integrated with a wide range of computer, networking, and consumer electronics products, including mobile devices. Because of the higher frequency, the radios based on the WiGig spec would have limited range, being used to inter-connect devices in a single room.

The Alliance members will be actively involved in the work of the IEEE's 802.11ad task group, which was recently formed to draft a multi-gigabit WLAN standard for 60GHz. Alliance members foresee a seamless handoff between the short-range 60GHz connections and today's longer-range Wi-Fi access points, which can cover an entire home.

Eventually, the multi-gigabit 802.11ad standard will support WLAN connections in the 2.4, 5, and 60GHz bands all on a single chip, says Mark Grodzinsky, vice president of marketing for Wilocity, an Israeli silicon startup with U.S. offices in Portland, Ore., and a WiGig founder.

The initial board of directors is drawn from 13 founding companies, including leading chip vendors like Atheros, Broadcom and Intel, computer companies such as Dell, and makers of mobile devices and consumer electronics like LG Electronics, Nokia, and Panasonic. There are four other "contributors", all chip vendors, including NXP and STM Electronics.

The Alliance plans to work closely with the recently launched IEEE 802.11ad task group, which has begun work on a formal multi-gigabit WLAN standard based on the 60GHz band.

An array of companies have been demonstrating short-range, gigabit connectivity, for example, wirelessly streaming high-definition video to a big flat panel display.

The new alliance is an effort to unite as wide a range of vendors as possible behind a unified standard, as soon as possible, says McFarland. The Alliance plans to ensure interoperability among a highly diverse group of products through a full testing and certification program.

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